skills gap

A Success Story: Closing the Skills Gap in America

By DeRionne Pollard

Partnerships, faculty and a presence in a growing field are key.

The 21st-century labor market pivots more quickly than we could have imagined even 25 years ago. Changes in technology create new fields seemingly overnight. As the president of Montgomery College (MC), in Maryland, I have watched these dynamics for five years and have seen our curricula change with astonishing speed. This agility, it turns out, has allowed our college to serve industry needs more effectively, especially in high-tech fields, as we laid out in our 2015 Workforce Development report.

MC serves 60,000 students a year, and we map industry standards to our curricula in order to better serve workforce needs. One example of this type of accelerated skills training is in a field that has become a mainstay of the Maryland economy: cybersecurity.

Thirty years ago, cybersecurity didn’t exist as a discipline. When the first serious computer hacking began in the 1980s, few people predicted that this field would become an industry requiring enormous investments in personnel and technology. But it did, and by 2014, there were thousands of cybersecurity jobs in Maryland that went unfilled for lack of qualified workers.

Since MC had been building a cybersecurity program for the previous 10 years, we already offered a certificate in cybersecurity, an associate degree in cybersecurity and transfer options to an in-state program for a bachelor’s degree in computer technology. Our cybersecurity enrollment grew 900 percent in four years, and our students began filling in-demand positions, such as network administrator, network analyst and network engineer.

“Having industry relationships already in place when a market change occurs is one key to implementing quick, effective responses.”

We had also partnered extensively with local companies — Lockheed Martin among them — so we were optimally positioned to apply for the competitive Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) federal grant program. By partnering with 14 other state community colleges and collaborating with 40 employers, MC was awarded $15 million to train workers to fill this burgeoning security need.

Part of our success relied on demonstrating the market value of our services with real-time labor statistics (209,000 unfilled cyber jobs in the nation, and 20,000 of them in Maryland). We also included data on how much cyber jobs were predicted to grow over 10 years in Maryland (37 percent, based on U.S. Bureau of Labor formulations). Additionally, MC relied heavily on long-standing industry and educational partnerships. Because our faculty had collaborated closely with these partners and had mapped the cybersecurity curriculum to federal security technician standards, we were able to quickly illustrate our relevance to business needs. While not every field will expand as dramatically as cybersecurity has, having industry relationships already in place when a market change occurs is one key to implementing quick, effective responses.

Creating the right climate for this is the responsibility of leadership. At MC, faculty and deans are encouraged to undertake program reviews that examine labor market conditions and projections. The college also nurtures programs that are designed around industry standards and credentials, making our students’ skills more clearly marketable.

Finally, MC recruits practitioner faculty who come from business and industry and bring leading market practicality into our classrooms and labs. Having faculty who serve on industry boards and with work groups has also been valuable: MC has a seat on our county’s Workforce Investment Board, and many college leaders are active in local business and industry organizations. The location, the funding mechanisms and the leadership structure of a community college all play into an institution’s ability to expand quickly into education and skills training that are most relevant to the market. But all community colleges that nurture partnerships between classroom learning and the needs of businesses will be preparing their students well for employment and helping to close America’s skills gap.

DeRionne Pollard

is the president of Montgomery College, in Maryland.

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